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Leading by 'Managing Up'

Leadership development these days focuses on the vertical leadership aspects of how leaders can become better at getting results from those who work for them. However, we also need to focus on the vertical leadership aspects of how we can demonstrate leadership by helping our bosses do better.

After all, with very few exceptions, we all work for someone, no matter our title, role or seniority. Even CEOs report to a board of directors!

The common term for helping our bosses improve their efficiency and efficacy is known as ‘managing up.’[1] While it may initially sound like kowtowing or sucking up, it’s quite the opposite. Managing up is difficult and requires deliberate leadership action. 

Former Harvard professor Dr. John Kotter is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on leadership and change; he has highlighted specific things that go into effectively managing up.

In short, he finds that we need significant emotional intelligence if we’re going to really help our bosses lead better. Specifically, Kotter finds that managing up means leveraging social relationship and empathy skills, putting ourselves in our boss’ shoes and understanding what his or her goals, pressures, strengths, shortcomings and work style preferences are.

Conversely, we need to possess a great deal of self-awareness and understand our own strengths, challenges, styles and preferences.

Knowing both ourselves and our boss then allows us to exercise relationship management skills by developing and maintaining relationships that fit both needs and styles, recognize clear mutual expectations and keep our boss informed. This inherently builds trust and establishes us as honest and dependable in our boss’ eyes.[2]

How can we figure all of this out, especially when we find ourselves with a new boss? It starts with communication. Leadership development consultant and author Michael D. Watkins suggests preparing for and conducting these five conversations with a new boss in order to effectively manage up[3]:

  1. Situational Diagnosis – Helps us understand what phase our boss sees the team or organization going through, be it start-up, turnaround, realignment, etc.
  2. Expectations – Helps us gain clarity around and negotiate expectations of performance and what success looks like
  3. Resource – Our opportunity to negotiate for critical resources such as funding, time or people
  4. Style – Helps us understand our boss’ work preferences and ways for best engagement such as face-to-face, email, etc. This also helps us understand decision-making boundaries: Which ones are ours? Which ones require consultation? Which decisions are our boss’?
  5. Personal Development – An opportunity to discuss our developmental priorities and opportunities for growth that help both us and the organization

Leading is obviously hard work and sometimes it’s easier to think that our boss is the one who signed up for all that hard work. The truth is however that leaders are fallible people who need help too, and we have an opportunity to demonstrate leadership by working on ways to make our boss’ jobs more efficient and effective.  


[1] https://www.northeastern.edu/bachelors-completion/news/blog-managing-up/

[2] https://hbr.org/2005/01/managing-your-boss

[3] Watkins, M. (2013). The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter. Harvard Business Review Press.

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